Creatively Rethinking Campus-Community Engagement during Covid

As Covid-19 continues to spread in the U.S., higher education institutions are taking the necessary steps to keep their students, staff, and faculty safe. Many campuses, including Trinity, have moved to remote classes for some length of time and faculty and staff are being encouraged to work from home. Our communities are being told to practice social distancing, which is the correct public health message, but one that also requires those working in community engagement to invent entirely new ways for people to stay connected to each other and civically engaged during this period.

After a few days of reckoning with the new normal and setting up our home offices, our CHER team began brainstorming ways that our work and partnerships could change to respond to the current crisis. We knew it was important to do this in a way that keeps everyone safe and in a way that stays true to our mission to strengthen educational partnerships between Trinity students, staff, faculty and the Harford community, so we posed the question, “How can people become civically engaged while practicing social distancing?”

Our response has been to develop two new initiatives:

  • Remote Volunteering: Through dual online forms and results, we collect requests about the needs of Hartford community partners, and also skills and ideas offered by Trinity students/staff/faculty. CHER team members help to make matches between the two groups, and we emphasize new ways to volunteer remotely by phone or online.
  • Telling Our Covid Stories: We invite students to pitch us their stories — in essays, photography, audio, or video format — to deepen our understanding of different people’s experiences of this crisis, and how communities have responded. This initiative draws inspiration from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which employed artists, musicians, and writers to create cultural works during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

To assist other organizations in rethinking campus-community engagement during Covid, here’s additional background on how the CHER team created our initiatives.

Remote Volunteering: When our campus ended regular classes in mid-March, we decided to go directly to our community partners and ask them what their current needs are, which is important since Covid 19 has drastically changed the operations and staffing structures of many community organizations. To help match those needs, we then invited our Trinity students, faculty, and staff to contribute ideas and skills they can offer to the Hartford community. Thanks to the work of our team and the flexibility of our community engagement database in Airtable, several of these listings now appear publicly on our new web page “Volunteer in the Hartford Area During Covid 19.” This public web page, coupled with a series of CHER blog posts and social media content, will also help us to create new partnerships and expand existing partnerships between community organizations and Trinity students, faculty, and staff. We also hope that making this engagement visible will help inspire others to get involved if and when they feel ready to do so.

To help Trinity students, staff, and faculty to think more creatively about this new “remote volunteering” concept, our team created this ever evolving list of online community engagement ideas, which we emailed to our entire campus community and publicized on social media:

Along with all of the public health guidelines, providing opportunities for civic engagement is critical for the health of our communities during this stressful period. We know that support and connection are important, so we remind everyone to contact any member of the CHER team to discuss ideas or questions that are on your mind. We also add this reminder in all of our communications:

CHER encourages remote volunteering during Covid 19. If people choose in-person volunteering, exercise caution and follow social distancing guidelines for your location from the CDC or the State of Connecticut (see also CT FAQ sheet) or Trinity College Advisories. See also recent CHER News posts about staying safe while being civically engaged during Covid 19. 

Telling Our Covid Stories:

In late March, the CHER team had heard from several Trinity students who were looking for ways to stay more connected with other during the public health isolation period. In particular, we also heard from students who had lost their campus jobs, or needed to help put food on the table now that they were living at home.

We launched Telling Our Covid Stories, which invites Trinity students to submit stories about the Covid-19 pandemic to deepen our understanding of different people’s experiences of this crisis, and how communities have responded. These stories will be made publicly available to highlight the variety of experiences and to remind us about the importance of connection and community during this difficult period. This initiative draws inspiration from Federal Project Number One of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which employed thousands of artists, musicians, and writers to create cultural works during the Great Depression of the 1930s. We recognize that Trinity students can draw on their liberal arts skills to create stories from different communities to share with broader audiences. Furthermore, we aim to connect student contributors — particularly those with financial need during this crisis — with Trinity funding sources to pay them as hourly student workers.

We created a web page with online form to walk students through the process:

1) Pitch your story idea and format — essay, photography, audio, or video — in our online form. Apply in early April to guarantee consideration, and submissions will be reviewed on a rolling basis.You can propose to work solo or with a partner.  Applicants must also agree that all work is original and may be shared on the public web.

2) CHER will review submissions and seek to match you with an editor on our staff and if requested, a funding source (such as a related Trinity departmental or program budget with unspent funds). Funding preference will be given to students with demonstrated financial need. We cannot guarantee a match or funding.

3) If the student agrees to the match and funds are available, a set amount will be paid to complete the work. For this initial round, we anticipate that a typical submission will require 10 hours of work per person (or about $110 per person through Trinity student hourly payroll, with direct deposit to your account).

4) When the student and their assigned editor agree that the work is complete, CHER will arrange for it to be hosted on a Trinity website and made available to the public.

To help students think creatively, we included several prompts to spark ideas about designing their projects. We told them: Remember, this is a project about your experience so there is no wrong way to do it. You can be creative and come up with your own ideas, or take some inspiration from the ideas below.

  • Video or written essay: What has changed or what has stayed the same for you during Covid-19? What has been difficult? What has been positive?
  • Video, photos, or written essay: How has your community responded to the pandemic?
  • Video or written essay: Many people have been staying in some level of quarantine the past few weeks. Have you had time to reflect? What are you thinking about or wondering about?
  • How have you been staying connected with classmates/friends during Covid-19? You might compile screenshots of your group texts, photos of your video chats or Instagram posts, or writing.
  • Are you on campus, at home, with a friend? What does campus or your hometown look like? You might send in a video or photo series of photos with captions.
  • Video, written essay, or photo series: Have you helped your neighbors or volunteered either in-person or remotely?

During the month of April, the CHER team will review student submissions and match those with editors, typically Trinity staff or faculty who have volunteered their time for this project. Also, we will seek to tap into unspent departmental/program operating budgets to squeeze out approximately $110 per student per project, when funding is requested. We plan to host all completed submissions on the CHER website and other online venues as appropriate.